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McGrath: Summertime travel for motel cowboys

Updated: September 27, 2012 11:12AM



Each time our kids went camping or swimming, they knew to pack the green-and-white towel from the top shelf of the linen closet. For that was the family’s official spare towel, the one embroidered with the logo of the Holiday Inn.

Yes, it had been ripped off following a stay at one of the chain’s 2,000 motels. We we did not consider ourselves thieves or kleptomaniacs or even irresponsible parents. Rather, for us it was an act of symbolic justice.

We had gone on our first spring vacation after five years of marriage — with two small children, a starter house and an $11,000 annual salary — having saved about $150 for a road trip to the country.

On our first evening, shortly after checking in at the Rantoul, Ill., Holiday Inn, we put on our swimsuits and headed to the indoor pool. Thirty minutes later, my wife returned to the room to find it had been burglarized.

Our room was one of two adjoining rooms, between which the door was broken open, the slide bolt popped off with a hammer or with the help of someone’s shoulder. The police suspected an inside job because the room next door was vacant. My wife’s wallet with all of our cash was taken.

Hotel management shrugged off all responsibility. They did say they were sorry. But a real apology would have included a comped room or dinner on the house or, at the very least, suckers for the kids. Instead, the only suckers extant were our family of four, which explains my vengeful pilferage of the bath towel when we checked out.

Don’t get me wrong. I love hotels or the smaller, more accessible motels, including Holiday Inn. In fact, I’m relating details of the late 1970s room burglary to underscore the fact that in four decades and about 1,000 hotel and motel stays around the country, the wallet theft was the only real crime I have to report— the propositioning of my wife at the Montego Bay Holiday Inn in Jamaica five years earlier, notwithstanding. (We were on our honeymoon, the gigolo was a white-haired souvenir salesman, and my wife blushed, laughed and thanked him for the compliment).

I have loved motels ever since 1963, when the old man drove the entire family down U.S. 41 to Florida in the middle of August and cruised around Lauderdale by the Sea until he found a two-story motor court with a pool and a diving board.

He procured a separate room for himself and my mother and sisters, and another for me, Kenneth, Pat, and Kevin for the rest of the week for the off-season bargain price of $120, total cost for both rooms.

Apart from the nasty sunburn on our first day (we used Johnson Baby Oil back then, go figure), it was our most outstanding vacation to date. My brothers and I felt like big shots with our own room keys, and we didn’t even have to make our beds.

Later with my wife and children, we depended on motels because flying vacations were unaffordable, and Marianne swore off sleeping bags and tents.

In the pre-Internet Stone Age, with money scarce and our need for personal luxuries and comforts non-existent, we prided ourselves on finding the place with the lowest price. More often than not they were the cottage-type units, where you parked your car just inches from the cabin door, which explains the origin of the word motel — motor + hotel.

Top prize for the cheapest stay was in Sullivan, Ill., when my pal Mike Pavlick and I drove to Lake Shelbyville to do some crappie fishing. The motel offered a double room with twin beds for $25 a night, which Mike talked the proprietor down to $22, seeing as we’d be gone all day and would waive maid service.

Exhausted after the first day’s fishing, we slept the sleep of the dead until about 3 a.m., when I suddenly sat upright, trying to discern whether the image of a 280-pound, bald and naked man next to our TV was real or imagined.

But it couldn’t be a mirage because Mike also woke in surprise.

“Sorry, wrong room,” the stranger said, turning and waddling out, closing the door behind him.

Come morning, we laughed about it, conceding that it had been an exceptionally warm night, we had left the door unlocked and the stranger, another hotel guest/fisherman who was obviously inebriated, had apologized.

Since then, our salary rose and our needs got more complicated. Now, we only stay where there is a coffee maker in the room and a fitness center on the premises. We’ve gone from Motel 6 at around $38 a night to something like the Hampton Inn at $110. And of course, there are many more to choose in between from the more than 50,000 hotels in the U.S.

Most recently, on the occasion of my daughter Janet’s wedding in downtown Chicago, we lived it up at the luxury Renaissance Marriott. Its plush comfort and sublime quiet were immensely appreciated after some stressful traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

I took photographs through the window of our suite on the 20th floor, where far below, colorful kayaks plied the Chicago River in the foreground of the Trump Tower.

A one-night stay at the Renaissance costs $309 plus tax, and valet parking is an additional $55.

But no naked Mr. Clean barged in at 3 a.m., so who’s complaining?

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



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